The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #33/250: The Spark by William Prince

In 1986, William Prince was born in Selkirk, Manitoba.

William Prince

I have written many sentences over the years but few have been so rife with historical significance as the one that begins this post. While keeping in mind that this is a post about a singer and his songbook, it is impossible to separate William Prince from his lineage and the role his ancestors have played in several important events in Canadian history. His is a bloodline that has known its share of grand accomplishments and tragic heartbreak. His past informs his present in many ways but none more so that the philosophy of spirituality that guides much of his songwriting. William Prince is one of Canada’s most distinctive voices. The deep, rich timbre of his voice sets him apart from most singers. The hopeful, passionate tone of his lyrics resonates with all who are fortunate to hear him sing. William Prince has released four albums to date and has already received a Juno Award for Best Contemporary Roots and Traditional Album of the Year. He has also been named as Canada’s English Songwriter of the Year in 2020. But to fully appreciate the story of one of the rising stars in the Canadian music scene, it is important that we journey back almost two centuries to a time when Canada, as we now know it, didn’t exist. This is the story of William Prince. It is also the story of how Canada came to be.

Chief Peguis also known as Cut Nose.

William Prince is a direct relation to an Ojibwe chief named Cut Nose. Our history books have christened him as Chief Peguis. Cut Nose was the leader of the Saulteaux Peoples. Originally, the Saulteaux lived in what is now known as Ontario. But, with the westward expansion of English settlers across Ontario, Cut Nose moved his people to the Red River Valley in what is now known as Manitoba. Not long after the Saulteaux settled there, a man named Lord Selkirk appeared in eastern Canada. He found that there was money to be made in acquiring land and helping new settlers to build homes and set up farms. He began his business ventures on land found on Prince Edward Island. The success of his plans there encouraged Lord Selkirk to search for vacant properties to the west. He applied to the British Government to buy a tract of land in the Red River Valley of Manitoba but was refused because that land had already been granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company for fur trading. Undeterred, Lord Selkirk teamed up with Alexander McKenzie. Together they bought for themselves a controlling share of Hudson Bay Company stock. To further consolidate his position, Selkirk married the daughter of one of the Board members of the HBC. With his newly acquired authority, Selkirk assumed control of the Red River Valley and began the process of helping settlers to safely establish settlements there. At the time, many Indigenous Peoples had already been working in cooperation with the Northwest Company, which was a rival fur trading company to The Hudson’s Bay Company. In particular, the local Metis Peoples had a long and successful partnership with the Northwest Company and refused to cede the land to Selkirk without a fight. In the years that followed, there were many battles between the Metis and the forces of those who represented “The Crown” leading to, in time, the rise of Louis Riel and the battle known in history books as The Red River Rebellion. Caught in the middle of this political maneuvering were the Saulteaux led by Cut Nose. In order to limit the spread of Indigenous unrest, Lord Selkirk opted for a different strategy with the Saulteaux and the other Indigenous Nations in the area. He called for negotiations aimed at the formal establishment of peaceful relations between the new settlers, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Indigenous Peoples of the land. These negotiations ended with the landmark signing of a peace treaty that is known in Canadian history simply as Treaty 1. In this treaty, the Indigenous Peoples of the land agreed to cede control of the entire Red River Valley area and beyond for all time. In return, they would be guaranteed an annual stipend and access to a parcel of land that would be exempted from any new settlement plans. One of those who signed away the rights to their land was Cut Nose on behalf of the Saulteaux. As many Indigenous Nations in North America were to find out, the Crown would soon use the same combination of armed force and negotiated promises to limit resistance across the remainder of the West. But, as they also found out, once these treaties were signed, the promises made were soon forgotten and those left on the newly created reserves often faced very hard economic and social times moving forward. In an attempt to ingratiate himself into the good graces of Lord Selkirk and his followers, Cut Nose agreed to convert to Christianity. In doing so, he gave up the use of his Indigenous name and adopted the name given to him which was William King. He was called “King” because he had been chief of his Nation. His sons and all descendants to follow were christened with the name “Prince”. This is how singer William Prince came to have his name.

Tommy Prince Stamp (CNW Group/Canada Post)

But William Prince’s family tree had yet another experience with the glory of proud accomplishment and the tragedy of failure. Cut Nose/William King had a great grandson named Tommy Prince. Tommy Prince would enlist in the Canadian Armed Forces and would go on to become one of Canada’s most highly skilled and decorated soldiers in our history. He earned his fame as a member of The Devil’s Brigade, which was a highly trained covert unit of soldiers who operated in WWII, as well as The Korean War. Despite earning multiple awards for bravery while in combat, when Tommy Prince was honourably discharged he returned to a Canada where Indigenous people were often faced with much discrimination. He found it almost impossible to get a job because his fellow employees would refuse to work alongside him because of his Indigenous status. He was also denied entry into The Royal Canadian Legion. Eventually, Tommy Prince developed addictions and suffered from mental illness. He died alone in a boarding house room no bigger than a jail cell. His death resulted in calls for a re-examination of how Canadians treat and regard Indigenous people. A Heritage Minute video was created about Tommy Prince’s story. Canada Post has subsequently honoured him with a stamp. Tommy Prince died in 1976.

William Prince was born in 1986 in Selkirk, Manitoba. Although he never met Tommy Prince (his third cousin) or Cut Nose/William King (his great-great grandfather), the historical weight of the past is something young William has carried with him his entire life. For some people, that weight would be viewed as a burden. But for William Prince, he has embraced his past and is determined to bring pride to his family and to his Peoples. One of the very first things that happened to William as a child was that he and his family moved from Selkirk to Peguis First Nation, which sits about 100 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Once settled there, William was introduced to the world of music by his father, who was a minister. As a teen, William tried his hand at singing in a grunge band (which was all the rage in North America in the late 1990s/early 2000s). Prince discovered that his voice was too deep to sing as fast and as high as he would have needed to in order to sound like his hero, Kurt Cobain. But, those who did hear him sing all commented that his voice seemed well suited for a slower style. That prompted Prince to buy an acoustic guitar. He abandoned his Nirvana-esque dreams and began to see music as a way to try and change the course of his family history. Thus, he took time to play and hone his skills as a guitarist. William Prince also took time to perfect the craft of writing songs that had meaning and that came from his heart. All through his twenties, Prince practised and played and wrote. It wasn’t until 2015, when he was almost 30 years old, that he felt he had enough skill and life experiences to warrant putting his music out to the world. His first album was called Earthly Days and was a mix of Gospel, Country and Folk. His work was well received by fans and critics alike, who were equally impressed by the sound of his voice as well as the maturity of his lyrics. Not long after Earthly Days was released and William Prince began to tour and play live in concert venues for the first time, he was approached to become involved in the Artist Development Programme offered by the folks who run Massey Hall in Toronto. In this programme, new artists are helped to secure bookings in venues that are an appropriate size for them during the early days of their career. In this way, an artist can be guaranteed of having bookings and can begin to develop an audience following that will grow with them as their career rolls along. What this meant for William Prince was that he eventually found himself on a bill at Massey Hall when it reopened in 2018 after having been closed for three years for renovations. He appeared at a show called The Songwriters Hall of Fame Gala. He appeared on stage with Inuk singer Elisapie to sing the song “Stolen Land” by Bruce Cockburn for Cockburn and the assembled crowd. The message of the song was clear to all in attendance. Since that performance, William Prince has continued to work with the folks at Massey Hall in an outreach programme for aspiring songwriters. He travels across the country, attending small festivals and appearing at local theatres and concert halls. At every stop along the way, William Prince continues to dazzle audiences with his beautiful singing voice and his message of hope, love and understanding.

The story of William Prince is definitely one of the most uplifting at play in the Canadian music scene today. His star is in ascendancy. His profile is becoming more well known across the country. His message of love and of hope is universal. He remains a proud member of Peguis First Nation. He has embraced his past and is striving to use his family’s experiences to inform his craft, and thereby, to inform all of us, too. Our world can be…and should be…a better place. William Prince is someone who is working tirelessly to make this happen. Let’s reply in kind and welcome him into our lives. He is a jewel of a human being. If this post is your introduction to him, then I am happy to have brought Mr. Prince to your attention. He is the real deal. Get ready to listen to some wonderful music. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song “The Spark” by William Prince can be found here.

The link to the official website for William Prince can be found here.

The link to the Massey Hall Artist Development Programme can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Peguis First Nation can be found here.

The link to the Heritage Minute video about the life of Tommy Prince can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

5 thoughts on “The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #33/250: The Spark by William Prince”

  1. Damn Word Press! Amongst my Indigenous ancestors I count Mètis, Cree and Saulteaux (pronounced So-toe!), plus more. I think I told how the story about my great-grandfather and Treaty 1. William Prince sounds like someone we need more of trough these troubling times.
    Thank you for the story of a possible distant cousin.

    Liked by 1 person

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